A comma in Catullus

August 17, 2015

Authored by Patrick Finglass, Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and an editorial board member for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” –Oscar Wilde

Only Oscar Wilde could be quite so frivolous when describing a matter as grave as the punctuation of poetry, something that causes particular grief in our attempts to understand ancient texts. Their writers were not so obliging as to provide their poems with punctuation marks, nor to distinguish between capitals and small letters. If modern editors wanted to recreate the ancient reading experience, we ought to print texts in capitals throughout, with no punctuation or even spaces between the words; but our readers would probably not thank us for doing that. So in our editions we have to make choices about punctuation and the like, based on our understanding of what the texts mean. And if Oscar Wilde could be perplexed by the placing of one of his own commas, we should not be surprised if we sometimes misinterpret the articulation of ancient texts – sometimes with unfortunate results.

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